There was never any formal announcement to the effect that modern British politics would no longer call on its citizens to make significant sacrifices. It just turned out that way. Perhaps it was after the 1970s oil crisis that politicians began to suspect such appeals were too great an electoral risk. Perhaps it got another push from the financial crisis of 2008. Either way, the mindset still remains strong of not trusting or relying on the public to stay the course when normality is put on hold.
No modern British politician would now make the speech that Franklin Roosevelt did when he became US president in 1933. “If I read the temper of our people correctly,” Roosevelt said in his first inaugural, “we now realise as we have never realised before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”
Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s underlying sentiment, that it is important for everyone to do their bit in a crisis, remains massively relevant, even after the transformations of the past century. For a nation and a Conservative party whose foundational reference point still remains Winston Churchill’s 1940 statement that he had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, the abandonment of this spirit of sacrifice and duty is particularly odd.
It is even stranger in view of the often positive lessons of Covid. The pandemic showed that exhortations to sacrifice can still work. People were ready to do their bit, making sacrifices for the common good. In fact, they were more ready to do so than the government was. Boris Johnson spent the pandemic squirming over the disruption and ignoring it. Much of his party has concluded that the lockdown was less a reminder of the enduring place of sacrifice in public policy and more a libertarian outrage.
The Tory leadership contest has confirmed that calls for sacrifice are no longer part of a 21st-century government’s repertoire. Britain faces daunting and difficult issues, and every household is affected. But in the Potemkin village Britain where the contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak is being fought out, it is as though all the answers to all the problems facing the country are somehow easy, faith based, cost free and involve no serious inconvenience. The most obvious example is Ukraine, where Johnson has acted the role of war leader, even though no British forces are involved.
The reality gap will narrow after 5 September, when Truss or Sunak steps into 10 Downing Street. But it is striking that complex problems have not been debated at the hustings in ways that recognise that living costs, climate change and Ukraine carry both costs and benefits that cannot be avoided. Life in the 2020s is increasingly insecure for most people, but you would never know this from the hustings.
Take the climate crisis as a primary example, which the leadership contest has conspicuously not done. The broiling summer of 2022 could hardly provide a more potent warning that the planet is in distress and Britain unprepared. A long-term strategy – in which everyone has a part to play – for moderating and reversing the crisis is long overdue. The public is almost certainly on board for the sacrifices that will be involved. Yet there has been almost no hint of that in the Tory debates. It is as though Cop26 never happened.
Instead, focusing only on Tory party members, Truss talks about axing the so-called green levies, while Sunak wants VAT to be cut from energy bills for a year. Both are hostile to solar panels and onshore windfarms. Several key Truss backers are net-zero delayers and some are full-on climate sceptics. Above all, there has been no attempt by either Truss or Sunak to use the contest to confront businesses, households and citizens with the need for long-term, irreversible and life-changing sacrifices. It adds up to a massive national failure. No wonder politicians are little trusted.
There is a similar missed opportunity over the impact of the Ukraine war on energy supplies and living costs. Neither candidate has tried to make the big argument that gas shortages and high costs are part of the price that Europe and the democracies must pay to stop Russia in Ukraine. Neither has gone on to suggest that something approaching Rooseveltian sacrifices and discipline may even be required across the nation and that spending must be targeted on the most needy while this is so. Instead, Truss proposes tax cuts that will give rich people even more money.
The new and more feckless approach is an extraordinary and jaw-dropping contrast with the more collectively responsible past. It is a very strange kind of leadership that says the whole country faces a financial crisis and so I am not going to do anything for you unless you are already well off. Yet it is also a very contemporary leadership trope to elevate a problem while telling people that the solution is not going to hurt.
Brexit is a classic example. Although Brexit was extremely difficult and disruptive, neither Theresa May nor Johnson allowed themselves to admit it. May might have succeeded better if she had levelled with the public about the problems while arguing at the same time that the rewards would make Brexit worthwhile. The same may also apply to Nicola Sturgeon over Scottish independence, if she can bring herself to admit that separation from the UK will also involve major disruptions and sacrifices.
British politics has not just lost the ability to talk about necessary sacrifices. It also seems to have lost the will to make them. The United States is similarly uncertain and even more divided against itself. Both societies find it hard to square their liberal individualism with their self-interest as nation states and democracies in hard times. Both appear overly dependent on hedonism and overly casual about existential threats. Putin is relying on this hesitancy. He seems depressingly right about the lack of ambition and leadership among too many of our politicians. But I think and hope he underestimates the public.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian associate editor and columnist